There's an article, "The Tech Industry’s Darkest Secret: It’s All About Age", by Vivek Wadhwa which I spotted this morning. In it he asserts that all startups are hell-bent on hiring 20-somethings for a pittance and turning their backs on anyone who didn't grow up watching Pokemon cartoons. I've got a slightly different take on this matter.
He's correct in that this is a touchy subject. And since I am a hiring manager at a SaaS startup, let me be clear: we hire smart and emotionally mature people who, via a rigorous and standardized interview protocol, we believe will get things done and thrive at our company. We do not take age, gender, marital status, race, religion and etc. into account when hiring.
This has endowed us with a awesome and diverse technical team. We've ended up providing a significant amount of training to everyone who has joined.
Mr. Wadwha cites this study:
Brown and Linden’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census data for the semiconductor industry revealed that although salaries increased dramatically for engineers in their 30s, these increases slowed after the age of 40. After 50, the mean salary fell by 17% for those with bachelors degrees and by 14% for those with masters degrees and Ph.Ds. And salary increases for holders of postgraduate degrees were always lower than for those with bachelor’s degrees (in other words, even Ph.D degrees didn’t provide long-term job protection).
(Let me say, these are statistics about the semiconductor industry and not the software industry. I don't know if they've got any bearing to software/web startups at all. But let's say they do, just to have the rest of the conversation.)
He then makes this statement:
It may be wrong, but look at this from the point of view of the employer. Why would any company pay a computer programmer with out-of-date skills a salary of say $150,000, when it can hire a fresh graduate — who has no skills — for around $60,000? Even if it spends a month training the younger worker, the company is still far ahead. The young understand new technologies better than the old do, and are like a clean slate: They will rapidly learn the latest coding methods and techniques, and they don’t carry any “technology baggage.” The older worker likely has a family and needs to leave the office by 6 p.m. The young can easily pull all-nighters.
So, I'm not going to debate whether or not employers are doing this. If they are, they're wrong.
(And if they are, so much the better for me. While you're killing yourself finding and then overpaying a 20-something "Rails Ninja" (because I think theses comp numbers aren't right) I'm making a minor investment to turn a great engineer who doesn't know Rails into a great engineer who does know Rails in a scant few weeks.)
However, I would like to recast the above statement not in terms of young vs. old, but in terms of adaptable vs. non-adaptable.
People who are attractive to me as a hiring manager are people who exhibit adaptability, curiosity and industriousness. As a hiring manager reading a resume or conducting a phone screen, the marker for these traits is a history of tinkering around with mobile devices, hardware, open source or some other activity that demonstrates the person has a desire to learn and do.
I'll anecdotally assert that people who went through college in an age of cheap computers, easy high-speed Internet connectivity, a burgeoning ecosystem of free languages and other technology are more likely to exhibit those markers. Because it was cheap and easy! (I might even argue that it also became cool.)
The people who did not enjoy a that kind of environment seem to be less likely to exhibit the markers I mention--but they're not that hard to find! Especially if you're motivated.
Mr. Wadhwa closes with several pieces of advice which may or may not be attractive to you. For folks of all ages who love technology and coding, I'll highlight this one:
Keep your skills current. This means keeping up to date with the latest trends in computing, programming techniques, and languages, and adapting to change. To be writing code for a living when you’re 50, you will need to be a rock-star developer and be able to out-code the new kids on the block. Top developers are always in demand and companies will readily pay top dollars for them.
I'm not sure I'd phrase it exactly that way, but I'll second its spirit. If you're a person who likes to code and you're not already doing something to demonstrate you're an adaptable, curious and industrious person, do it now. Especially if you want to work at an early stage company.
You don't need to write the next Linux or Rails. But you should be spending an hour or two a week on keeping sharp. Think of it like brushing your teeth twice a day and saving for your retirement (except it's more fun!) It will pay off in the future.